Leeds reflects on being first female Native law school dean

Stacy Leeds currently serves as vice chancellor for economic development, dean emeritus and professor of law at the University of Arkansas.

The University of Arkansas, located in Fayetteville, is home to many accomplished scholars. One of the most recognized is Stacy Leeds, vice chancellor for Economic Development, dean emeritus and professor of law.

Over her storied career, Leeds has taught at several universities, was in the running to be principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and has served in her current position for nearly three years.

"My job at the University of Arkansas is to maximize opportunities for more formal and informal partnership between the university and partners in the community," said Leeds. "This means working with all the colleges across campus to understand their unique possibilities, incentivize faculty, staff and students to engage externally and remove barriers that make it difficult for outside entities to work with the university."

From 2011-2018, she was the dean of UA's School of Law, and is recognized as the first and only Native American woman to serve as a dean of a law school in the U.S.

"When I took the job as law dean in Fayetteville, in addition to being a Cherokee woman, I was a single mom with a 2-year-old," said Leeds. "I am very aware of how the university leaders at the time opened doors for me and took a chance on me."

According to Leeds, she stepped down as dean for her current position, seeing the potential to be more impactful in the scope of her work, across many disciplines.

Another first for Leeds was serving as the first female Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice, a role of which she remains very proud.

"That role is one of many opportunities I have had where I felt like I was in the right place at the right time," said Leeds. "The special relationship I enjoyed with my colleagues on the bench at the time is something I continue to cherish."

Growing up in Muskogee, sports played a major role in her life, from motivating her to succeed to impacting where she went to college.

"I was very lucky to have a strong network of support from family and community all along, and that contributed to my self-confidence and risk-taking," said Leeds. "A domino effect of remarkable opportunities followed [college], but much of the start of my career was attributable to basketball."

During her time as a history undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, she took a social work course that concentrated on Indian child welfare.

"I was hooked, and knew I wanted to advocate for tribes and tribal community members," said Leeds. "That's what pointed me in the direction of law school. I chose Tulsa for my JD [Juris Doctorate] because of their American Indian law program and because I was very homesick after being out of state for my undergrad."

Over the past year, she has re-established her home in Cherokee County to spend as much time in the area as possible. She also completed the second edition of her book, "Mastering American Indian Law," written with co-author Angelique EagleWoman.

"[The book] is geared toward law students, but is also a very accessible book for non-lawyers about the current state of American Indian law," said Leeds. "The book is unapologetically written from tribal perspective."

As with her career up until this point, Leeds keeps a driven look toward the future, continuing into her third year as vice chancellor at UA and teaching a class at Arizona State University this fall.

"This coming academic year will be a year of constant motion," said Leeds. "Service to the Cherokee Nation, in a variety of roles, will always be in my future."